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CD Feature/ Josh Russell: "Sink" & "Music for Geiger Counters"; V.A.: "Golden Various"

img  Tobias
Of all sound artists, Josh Russell may right now well be the most archetypical one. Just like David Newman (who operates under the Autistici moniker), Russell holds a physical empathy for noise in its purest form, for its wonders and its unconscious musicality. At the same time, he is capable of transforming these sounds into something thoroughly composed and steeped in creative breath, while awarding them a level of alluring abstraction, where others would instead use their inbuilt familarity as an easy means to create sympathy and recognition in the listener.

In this regard, Russell may soon come to be seen as the logical and worthy heir to the throne of Asmus Tietchens, even though this analogy of course denies the absolute individuality Russell has already infused his oeuvre with in the early stages of his career. His music seems to exist in between the lines and always appears to be developping in a completely natural way - although it is not always easy to fathom what exactly it is that he is doing with his source material.

“For LP”, his first full-length work, drew and demanded attention for its simultaneously zen-infused minimalism with regards to its presentation of musical ideas and its high-density resolution in terms of parameters like arrangement, methodology and timbre. Sometimes, Russell’s pieces suggested something very recognisable, but the closer one came, the more these associations seemed absurd. Most of all, there was a pervasive sense of emotionality lurking underneath a surface which initially promised cerebral pleasures only – a confounding, but highly appreciated sensation.

On his latest full-length work, released by selective and quality-smitten label Quiet Design, Russell again makes use of the immediate physicality of his sounds. “Sink” comes with the recommendation of “listening at an immersive volume on a playback system capable of articulating low frequencies” – iPod users beware – and hits the listeners directly in his solar plexus. At first, the record comes across as noisy and harsh, abrasive textures drilling themselves into the cortex and mutually embraced floursescent high-frequency tones slowly shooting into the nightsky like genetically engineered stipes.

The proximity to the Industrial movement has already caused some surprise and applause (Dutch reviewer Frans de Waard referring to “Sink” as the future of microsound), but the aggressive nature of the opening in no way contradicts Russell’s philosophy of digging up quiet music usually hidden from the ear by means of amplification and subtle tranformation. After the opening pieces have cleansed the mind, he gradually builds a stageringly tight, bass-heavy drone from a finely grained seed. This 26-minute long second half of the album is divided up into several segments, even though the music simply continues to flow.

Track changes occur whenever an old factor disappears or new elements enter the picture. It is almost as if Russell wants to emphasise differrent aspects of his music, indexing the piece along obvious, but never banal lines of development. As is the case with most dedicated sound artists, the questions he asks only make sense inside this reference system – but this does not render them meaningless. At the end of “Sink”, the listener may not have a practical use for his enlightenment, but he will have the strong feeling that he has just gone through something very special.

Released on the excuisite and still young Koyuki Sound label, the short-form “Music for Geiger Counters” presents a sparser, more reduced and almost skeletised side. Possibly a radical continuation of the first track on Kraftwerk’s “Radio Activity” album, “Geiger Counters” at first sounds like nothing more than a spindly chirping and high-frequency hum. On closer inspection, however, Russell applies constant changes to his material, continually altering factors such as volume, timbre and rhythmic emphasis.

While the action of “Alpha” and “Beta” takes place on the surface, without second thoughts or hidden doors, closing piece “Gamma” is an intricate example of lower case ambient. Subtle echoes and brittle atmospheres are interwoven with the ticking, which fades into a crackle, voiced-over by hiss. Repeated listenings reveal even more shadings and create a bewilderingly addictive appeal: Hypnotic hymns at the outmost corners of perception.

Next to his own artistic endeavours, Russell also acts as the head of the Bremsstrahlung imprint, a sort of pivotal point of the lower case movement, a lense focussing various activities in an extremely clear and pure light. At the end of last year, Bremsstrahlung gave birth to a sublabel, Trans>Parent Radiation, offering temporarily limited online releases, which later turn into lovingly packaged, small run physical CDs.

For one of the label’s first samplers, Russell has invited some of his long-term musical friends as well as a couple of newcomers for the "Golden Various" compilation researching the possibility of transferring the Golden Mean/Ratio (represented mathematically by the Fibonacci Sequence) to the world of music.

The results are a diverse bunch and once again prove that even specialised niches of sound art are anything but uniform or dogmatic. Jos Smolders works with frequency modulation, starting with near-silence and arriving at thick bass clusters ready to blow your speakers and eardrums apart, while Dale Lloyd’s “Embedded Systems of Unfolding” uses frail recordings of dried leaves. Toshiya Tsunoda bares the strict structural organisation of his piece in the liner notes (printed on heavy cardboard file cards), while Dan Warburton merely informs listeners that his music was “sourced from sound files recorded in Domecy-sur-le-Vault”.

Many artists describe their approach in detail, but the most thought-provoking contribution is Josh Ronson’s open refusal to believe the golden ratio can be applied to sounds at all, because it is essentially a visual phenomenon – and that musical approximations must be random. Maybe this statement should have come up-front, because it never puts the project as such in question, but rather asks for constructive solutions to the dilemma.

The good thing about “Golden Various” is that it doesn’t matter whether or not Ronson is right or not. The sheer diversity and intruiging nature of these tracks shows that the concept has definitely sparked a creative flame among the participants, with Brent Farris even referring to his sounds as “living objects”. Maybe the reason why this supposed deficit never fully manifests itself is because the perceived randomness may have to do with a lack of established references. Even in architecture and painting, the golden means is by no means recognised by everyone and its aesthetic value still contested.

In between this illustrous line-up, Josh Russell occupies a both modest and yet positively exposed position. His contribution is merely one and a half minutes short, and yet the guitar waves of “Fiboharmiculations” immediately stick out. Because of his limited solo output (mostly due to his activities as a graphic artist and as (brace yourself!) “Manager of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship core imaging facility at the University of Texas at Austin”, Russell is still a relatively silent force on the sound art scene – but one with a steadily growing impact.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Josh Russell
Homepage: Quiet Design Records
Homepage: Koyuki Sound Records
Homepage: Trans>Parent Radiation/Bremsstrahlung Records

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